"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." –Bill of Rights, Article I
That's what the Bill of Rights says:
- The government can't establish an official religion;
- The government can't prevent people from practicing their religion.
Here's what the Bill of Rights does NOT say:
- People can force others to follow their religious beliefs;
- The government should make it easy for people to follow their religious beliefs;
- The government should give people's religious sensitivities more weight than people's non-religious sensitivities;
- The government should give religious institutions a voice in government decisions, or any privileges whatsoever such as tax breaks.
Read it again: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Today, millions of Americans expect that their religious beliefs entitle them to special privileges: e.g., exemptions from doing their jobs when tasks conflict with their "sincerely held beliefs;" zoning that prevents businesses they don't like from opening near their churches.
One of the most important of these expected privileges is the privilege to require non-believers to behave like believers: e.g., prohibiting liquor sales on Sunday; prohibiting nude sun-bathing on beaches. Religious people also tend to feel that they should be protected from the behavior of non-believers—for example, from seeing condoms advertised on TV.
But it's much worse than that.
Mainstream religions are obsessed with sexuality. But they're not all that interested in sexual integrity, or sexual self-expression, or sexual communication, or sexual education. They're interested primarily in limiting sexual expression. Mainstream religions distrust sexual autonomy—people making sexual decisions for themselves, relying on their own values and ethics.
Thus, since the religious program about sex is primarily "don't do this, don't do that," when organized religion gets or seeks political power, it inevitably wants to institutionalize "don't do this, don't do that" in the legal system.
It doesn't matter what the "this" or "that" is. The problem is the "You may not do it" part.
Organized American Christianity wants to limit the sexual expression not just of believers, but of non-believers. And so they demand—and often pass—laws that:
- prevent strip clubs
- prevent swingers clubs
- prevent birth control
- prevent abortion
- prevent same-gender marriage
- prevent actual sex education
- prevent sex research
Westerners are viewing the increasing militancy of worldwide Islam with alarm. In countries as diverse as Nigeria, Indonesia, and Turkey, more and more government agencies are requiring people to live as believers, punishing non-believers who don't do so.
We should notice how that's happening right here. After all, it's Independence Day. Happy Birthday, America.
"…We know we need sex therapy, but there isn't anyone in our country we can talk to," read the email. "We'd like to speak with you by skype so you can help us fix our sex problems. Will you do this with us?"
They live in a major city whose name you probably know. He's a professor, she's a dentist. They speak excellent English, she says, and when they read my website, they knew I was the guy to help them. They'll pay by credit card, she adds.
Fast forward a couple of emails, and at exactly 6PM my time yesterday they call. Skype video works, showing them sitting together at their kitchen table. I've put on a dress shirt for the occasion. We have 30 minutes to get acquainted, see if we understand each others' English, and bridge two continents' worth of cultural expectations.
I say I'd like to ask some simple questions, then we'll get into the more complicated part of the story, and then we'll decide if we want to proceed. OK? OK.
They seem like a pretty normal couple, whatever that means. He's 36, she's 35. They're married 5 years, have no kids. What about pets? Yes, they have a dog named Achilles. I wheel in 31 years of clinical wisdom: "Where does the dog sleep?" "In bed with us," they smile sheepishly. I say nothing, but we all know something's already happening.
What do they wear when they sleep? Pajamas, both of them. And where do they change from their clothes into their pajamas? "I change in my room," he says, "and she changes in the bedroom." Why? That's where their respective dressers and closets are. So do they ever see each other naked? Yes, they shower together almost every morning. Why together? "It saves time when getting out in the morning for work," they agree.
Birth control when they have intercourse? Condoms. Yes, 100% of the time, "no problem." Good. Because it's almost impossible to do effective sex therapy when a couple doesn't have a consensus about this. Without consensus, every sexual occasion highlights a fundamental problem, an existential challenge that makes relaxation, pleasure, and trust unlikely. That's even true with couples mutually attempting to conceive—it just makes the sex too important.
But I see that they're dying to tell me their story their own way. Faces creeping closer to the webcam, their impatience is beginning to show. So I invite them to do so.
"After we had been dating a while, Maria's mother fell ill and Maria moved in with her," Jose says. Was this in the same city where they'd been dating? Yes. "And since we weren't going to live together, I moved in with my parents soon after," says Jose. "Not much privacy, then," I venture. "Oh no," they blurt out at the same time.
"What about a hotel?" I ask. "You were both already working, so you each had some income, yes? So couldn't you go to a hotel 2 or 3 times per month?" "I would have, but she refused," says Jose. "She said those places aren't for good girls, and she was afraid we'd get caught." Is he still resentful about this, or is our cultural chasm interfering with my perception? Or is that just a bit of skype on his face, rather than the resentment I imagine?
So for three years they hardly ever had sex. Then Mama died, they married, and moved into their own place. But the sex never rebounded, and in fact eventually melted away. Now the lack of sex is awful. Can I help them have more sex?
"Is that all you want?" I ask. It rarely is. "We also want to communicate about sex more easily," she says, and he nods. And how do they communicate about other things? Fine, they agree. "I wonder why you don't just use those same good communication habits and skills when the subject is sex," I venture. They say they don't know. "But that does seem like an important question, doesn't it?" Yes, they both nod.
I pause to let them think.
"How does your treatment change if you know we're thinking of divorce?" Maria asks abruptly. "I understand you're each in a lot of pain," I reply. "If by mentioning divorce you hope to let me know that this is a really, really, really serious problem, thank you—I understand that you really want to fix this, and you're frightened that we won't. I assure you I'm taking this as seriously as possible."
Any other questions?
"How long will this take? What will the therapy be like? Do you think you can help us?" These are the same questions almost all patients have. You don't have to come from South America to want some certainty about the process. The only certainty is that this is going to cost them plenty of hard currency. I answer honestly, appropriately vague, encouraging, and slightly cautionary.
"Let me say two things," I add. First, things happened during your three-year sort-of separation that probably need discussing, understanding, forgiving, and letting go. I don't know what they are, but given the structure of how things unfolded, I'd be surprised if this weren't true. You can start talking about that this week, or you can wait for our sessions.
It’s taken eight years, but the Supreme Court has finally ruled on the Cher/Bono/Richie fleeting expletives case (FCC v Fox Broadcasting) and NYPD Blue case (FCC v ABC). The Court unanimously reversed the FCC’s punishment of the two networks for showing 8 seconds of a character’s buttocks, and letting a few bad words on live TV go un-bleeped.
But it’s a mixed victory. Unfortunately, the Court decided these cases on procedural issues rather than First Amendment ones. And so Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the FCC is “free to modify its current indecency policy” to make government censorship guidelines clearer.
That doesn’t mean the decision is worthless; the Court said the government couldn’t enforce laws without first announcing and describing them clearly, and that it had to enforce them consistently. Censorship laws don’t work well that way, so this is a good requirement. On the other hand, the Court left in place the antiquated idea that the government should and can protect us from bad words and pictures on the TV shows we choose to watch in our homes. This guarantees more of the continual, pointless battle about defining obscenity, poor taste, the alleged danger of sexual words & images, and parents’ rights to protect their kids—and parents’ over-reliance on a nanny-government to do that “protecting.”
The worse thing about this court decision is the Court’s self-censorship—a bad example for the rest of the country. Remember, one of these cases turned on the FCC’s criticism of Fox after Cher said “fuck ‘em,” Bono said “fucking brilliant,” and Nicole Richie said “getting cowshit out of a Prada purse.” The government’s insistence on sanctioning the corporations that broadcast this is big, big news. The public needs to know what behavior is considered so egregious that our government gives itself permission to control and punish it.
But the Court, in ruling on this rather momentous issue, couldn’t bring itself to describe exactly what had happened to trigger the massive government action the Court was overturning. It described the words in question as “f**k ‘em” and ‘”Have you ever tried to get cows**t out of a Prada purse? It’s not so f***ing simple.’”
This longstanding, pathetic epistolary game—insert magic symbols so that we simultaneously know what we’re all discussing, but don’t sear our eyeballs with the actual demonic word—may be harmless in some situations, but not this one. This is the Supreme Court of the United States. Nothing trivial happens here. They hear only a few dozen of the 10,000 cases that petition them every year, each one chosen because it addresses a momentous wrong or a momentous issue.
The Supreme Court said the government can’t capriciously decide that a word or image is illegal AFTER it’s been uttered or displayed—and chided the FCC for doing just that. That makes this ruling very, very important. The Court’s refusal to state exactly what words were involved in the trial is disrespectful to the judicial process, to Americans’ right to government transparency, and to the ability of people to manage their possible discomfort about actual public events.
Thus, The Court affirmed the rule of law, but not the rule of adults. It demanded the government play fairer, but declined to expect much from the citizenry. And it undermined its own decision. If you can say fuck on TV, why can’t you say it in a Supreme Court decision about saying fuck on TV? If the word isn’t too dangerous for TV, it isn’t too dangerous for the Court.
All that aside, one cool thing about the decision is that Cher and Bono are described as “singers,” while Nicole Richie, deemed by even the Supreme Court to lack any actual talent, is simply described as “a person.”